Trash Talk: Garbage issues are on their minds
We're counting on students for winning trash ideas.
Photo and article by: Ellen Moorhouse
(Special to the Star)
Let’s face it. Our children will have to confront the mess left by our post-war consumer society.
Fortunately, after visiting some Toronto schools and seeing what they’re doing in terms of the environment and waste management, I can say the younger generation already has much to teach us.
That’s why Trash Talk is launching a contest for individual students or classes at Ontario elementary and secondary schools to submit their best trash-eliminating ideas, from new ways to reduce and recycle to strategies for changing attitudes.
First prize will include a $500 gift certificate from Loblaws for plant materials, a $199.95 Worm Chalet composter with 1,000 red wigglers from Cathy’s Crawly Composters, and a free screening with Toronto filmmaker Andrew Nisker of his film Garbage! The Revolution Starts at Home. The contest submission deadline is Friday, May 21. (See sidebar for details, and more prizes.)
This week and next, Trash Talk also drops by some Toronto schools where garbage, recycling and the environment gets lots of attention.
I started off at Quest Alternative Senior School, which occupies the top floor of Withrow Avenue Junior Public School in Riverdale. Three 13-year-old students, Lucy McGovern, Laura Curran and Brian Ou, from Grades 7 and 8, sent emails in late March inviting me to visit and discuss garbage and plastics.
They were getting ready for EcoQuest, an environmental fair put on every two years by the school’s 68 students. The event, which draws on a 30-year tradition, took place in the gym on April 8.
Preparing for the show involves a three-week eco-immersion, starting with a first week of speakers, films and research, to provide an overview; and a second and third week in which the student zeroes in on his or her topic, investigates it, produces a brochure, crafts a booth display and creates an oral presentation.
With the help of Quest’s three teachers, students also had to work out logistics: figuring how to fit 68 booths in the gym, coordinating visits from other schools, inviting parents, and contacting the press.
Lucy’s project was about plastic bags, given the impact of Toronto’s 5-cent charge and the big drop in usage she’d seen in her own home. Laura was concerned about the variety of plastics, and the non-renewable resources that go into their manufacture. Brian was appalled by over-packaging and was looking at the reasons for it.
The three asked about percentages of plastics that are recycled, whether plastics give off harmful chemicals in landfills or when they’re incinerated or recycled, which I’m by no means an expert in.
A week later, at EcoQuest, the gym was bright with presentations and noisy with some of the 600 or so students who visited during the day (parents were coming in the evening). A number of Quest students focused on garbage-related issues.
Sean Tidy dressed in a dog costume for his project on dog waste in urban centres (2,500 tonnes from Toronto parks each year); Alex Gadoury had an impressive presentation about the Great Pacific Garbage Mass (covering 500,000 square miles, an ocean area twice the size of Texas and larger than Ontario); Jem Cuthbert looked at garbage in space (it cost $15 million, she said, to remove a floating metal pin).
Meanwhile, Lucy was eloquent on the plastic bag challenge, and Laura was quizzing visitors on the recyclability of some plastic items. To illustrate his over-packaging theme, Brian was wielding a large plastic lollypop, which, once the big wrapper was removed and plastic globe opened, revealed seven tiny, individually wrapped, mediocre lollypops. He also displayed a banana on a wrapped polystyrene tray, priced at $1—the ultimate in redundant packaging for nature’s most perfectly wrapped food.
The students had collected some fascinating and discouraging facts:
- We use between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags worldwide each year and only a tiny 1 per cent is recycled.
- A hundred thousand marine animals die annually because they mistake plastic bags for food.
- Almost a third of the weight of products made in China represents excessive packaging.
- Eighty per cent of material in the Pacific garbage patch, much of it plastic, originated from land, while 20 per cent from ships.
As part of each project, students offered solutions: buy reuseable bags, ban plastic bags or boost the price, purchase second-hand goods, buy in bulk, complain to companies about over-packaging. They also see compostable and biodegradable plastics from plant sources as a solution.
The plastics industry and municipalities, who want to keep biodegradable products out of recycling streams to avoid contamination, are going to have a tough sell. Plastics might be super-efficient for shipping and packaging, and recycling programs are reducing carbon footprints. But young people like Lucy, Laura and Brian look at the over-packaging, the disregard for proper disposal and the persistence of plastic in the environment, and their conclusions are understandable.
As Alex points out, nothing can be done about the Pacific garbage patch, with all of its plastic, except stop the flow of waste into the oceans, hope nature takes its course and contribute to organizations studying it.
"It’s hard to digest that this is how our oceans are used," says Alex.
Next week we’ll visit Cassandra Public School and Maplewood High School.
Follow this link to: The Great Garbage Challenge